THE BLOG
12/16/2015 08:14 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2016

Just How Many Guns Do Americans Own?

JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images

Now that the New York Times has decided to become a major player in the gun debate -- they even have editorial writers attending gun shows -- we better make sure that all our facts are straight and our arguments correct when it comes to explaining violence caused by guns. Now I'm not concerned with getting facts from my friends on the gun nut side because like all gun nuts, including myself, we just want to hold onto our guns. But it's my friends in the GVP community dialoging with the newspaper that sets the gold standard for fact-checking who need to make sure they get it right. So over the next couple of weeks I'm going to look at some of the evidence the GVP folks bring to bear in discussing guns, and I'm starting today with the most basic question of all, namely, just how many guns do Americans really own?

We are told again and again that the size of the civilian arsenal is somewhere above 300 million and climbing fast. Since we don't have anything close to universal (or even partial) gun registration, this number comes from a somewhat creative extrapolation combining guns that are manufactured and imported (both of which must be reported to the ATF), plus estimates of how many guns were floating around before the ATF started compiling and publishing their numbers in 1986. The base number that is used by researchers on both sides comes from a survey of gun owners conducted for the National Institute of Justice in 1994. This study concluded that the civilian arsenal stood at 192 million guns which, when one adds in the annual numbers from the ATF since that date, gets us up to the 300-plus million that is bandied around today.

Both the gun nuts and the GVP are quite happy promoting a massive gun ownership number that continues to increase. After all, if you're the NRA, America's oldest civil rights organization, the more guns owned by Americans, the more guns are just another mainstream, consumer product, all the more reason why we shouldn't do anything about guns. On the other hand, the GVP community would find its recent organizational momentum slowing if, all of a sudden, gun ownership really started going down. What does seem to be declining is the percentage of American households which contain guns -- from what appears to have been maybe half of all American homes in the 1970s now appears to be roughly thirty percent.

The problem in figuring out the size of the civilian stock is that the surveys assume that once a gun gets into the civilian arsenal, it should always be counted as if it still exists and, more to the point, could be a factor in the link between the size of the arsenal and our extraordinary rates of gun injuries and gun crimes. But anyone who ipso facto assumes this to be true may know very little about guns.

According to the NIJ report, roughly one-quarter of all guns owned in 1994 were inherited or received as gifts, a percentage which is probably higher today as the proportion of gun owners continues to go down. Know what these guns tend to be? Old, useless junk. I can't tell you how many times the kids walk into my shop with a broken or rusted gun that's been lying around the old man's basement and now that the old man's carted off to the nursing home or the cemetery, the old lady says to the kids, "get rid of the goddamn guns." The average age of privately-owned guns in the NIJ report was 13+ years, which means that for every gun recently purchased, another one was at least a quarter-century old.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not denying the obvious connection between 300 million guns and 100,000 gun injuries and deaths every year. But if we believe that controlling those guns will reduce gun violence, we should understand which guns need to be controlled.